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Local Robotics Team Advances to International Competition

Hard work, teamwork — and the involvement of the community — pay off for the budding engineers

The Da Vincibles, also known as team 444, a local FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) LEGO League team, is headed to the league’s international competition in May.

The team is coached by Janet Deacon, John Deacon and Craig Shott, and team members are James Deacon, Julia Deacon, Ciara Giordani, Benjamin Helkey, Kyle Kovacs and Chloe Shott. Interestingly, only two team members go to the same school: three are home-schooled, one attends Santa Barbara Junior High, one is from Dos Pueblos High and one attends Bishop Garcia Diego High School.

On Dec. 18, the Da Vincibles surpassed 162 other teams to earn the second-place Champion’s Award at the regional competition in Chatsworth for Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties. The Champion’s Award is the most prestigious award a team can win in FLL. It celebrates the ultimate success of the FIRST mission and the FLL core values, and it is equally based on all four categories of the competition — teamwork, project, robot design and robot performance.

Only the first- and second-place Champions advance to the international level. In our region, the first attends the World Festival in St. Louis in April, and the second-place team attends the U.S. and Canadian Open Championship at Legoland in Carlsbad in late May.

So what is FLL? Kovacs of the Da Vincibles often replies to such queries with, “Do you have a half-hour?” Most of Santa Barbara has heard of FRC (FIRST Robotics Competition) thanks to the success of Dos Pueblos High School’s D’Penguineers, Team 1717, but fewer know that FIRST offers other types of robotics competitions as well, including one intended for 9- to 14-year-olds.

FLL and FRC are similar in that both involve building and programming a robot to accomplish various challenges, but there are quite a few differences. FLL games occupy a 4-foot-by-8-foot table, whereas FRC games span a 54-foot-by-27-foot room; FLL robots are built using Lego pieces and an NXT “brain,” whereas FRC robots are built with more stable parts and complex programming; and FLL competitions are significantly more competitive than FRC competitions. For example, in 2009, only 0.6 percent of FLL teams were invited to the World Festival and another 0.4 percent were invited to the FLL U.S./Canada Championship, whereas a sizable 21 percent of FRC teams were invited to the World Festival.

“It kind of felt like a backward day,” the Da Vincible’s Julia Deacon said at the end of the regional tournament, referring to the difference between the Da Vincibles’ qualifying and regional tournament experiences.

At the qualifying competition, the day started out horribly when the Da Vincibles realized they had built one mission backward and thus had been practicing it incorrectly. Drenched from the rain and already frustrated, the team scrambled to find solutions for their robot, the Mona Roba. In an ah-ha moment, Kovacs envisioned and built an attachment for the Mona Roba’s forklift that solved the problem, and the first pair up to the competition table (Julia and James Deacon) guided the Mona Roba to the high score of all teams for the day. After that, the Da Vincibles relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the tournament — and ultimately took home the first-place Champion’s Award!

At the regional competition, however, things seemed to work in reverse. The Da Vincibles’ day started out perfectly. They found a great parking spot, loaded in during a lull in the rain, achieved their maximum robot score on their first practice, and were in a well-lit room with food and bathrooms. What more could they ask for?

But it all went south from there. The Mona Roba bombed her first robot performance round — naturally, the round when the robot design judges were watching her. Between sessions of robot design judging, teamwork judging, project judging and robot performance rounds, the Da Vincibles frantically worked together at a practice table trying to figure out what was wrong with the Mona Roba. They all suggested changes but none worked consistently.

With only two robot performances left, Kovacs made a structural change to the Mona Roba that seemed to help. That next round (with Shott and Helkey at the table) showed much improvement, but the Mona Roba was still performing more than 100 points below her capability. So, when the team got back to the practice table, James Deacon suggested changing one mission’s program. That made everyone nervous because they knew from experience that alterations to programs tend to necessitate other alterations to programs, and there just isn’t time for such adjustments on tournament days. But it was their last shot — other than the Shott the Da Vincibles always have thanks to teammate Chloe’s last name — and when Helkey, the team’s official skeptic, said he didn’t think the Mona Roba could score well if they didn’t change the program, the Da Vincibles knew they had to try.

So, James Deacon focused over the computer, the rest of the team held its breath and at least one of the coaches said she grew a crop of new gray hairs. Then the Da Vincibles rushed off to their last robot performance — their last chance.

Because the Da Vincible T-shirts feature an adaptation of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, for good luck Shott’s grandma had previously given her an Italian euro picturing the Vitruvian Man. Shott stuffed this coin into Giordani’s pocket at the last minute, and, with Giordani visibly praying, the Mona Roba scored the second-highest score of the day! This, combined with the Da Vincibles’ first-place project win, helped the team win the second-place Champion’s Award and a coveted spot in the U.S. and Canadian Open Championship.

“Of course, if it were truly a backward day,” Helkey said, “we would have come in last place.” Thank goodness it wasn’t!

It’s definitely been a fun run for the Da Vincibles, and thanks to a year of bioengineering research, 13 bioengineering field trips, tons of robot building and programming, hard work, and the kindness of several locals and local institutions, the Da Vincibles won the first-place Champion’s Award at their qualifying tournament, the second-place Champion’s Award at their regional tournament and are now advancing to the three-day championship in late May.

The Da Vincibles want to thank the community for their help. Two departments and many people at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital contributed to the Da Vincibles’ success, particularly their first-place win and perfect score in the research project category. The Center for Wound Management permitted the Da Vincibles to study their hyperbaric oxygen chambers and provided gurney rides for the Da Vincibles’ Junior First Lego League (JFLL) team. (As part of their community involvement, the Da Vincibles sponsored and coached a group of elementary students in a JFLL team and, among other activities, helped them develop their own bioengineering study of the gurney.)

Even more significantly, however, Hank Goebel and Tracey Zamudio of the robotic surgery department invited the Da Vincibles to dress in surgical scrubs, go into the operating room and operate on a rubber bladder with the Da Vinci Surgical System (i.e. the Da Vinci Robot). This once-in-a-lifetime experience ultimately influenced the Da Vincibles’ project choice to design the idea of liquid crystal sutures, which change color when they are being stretched too much, to enable robotic (and laparoscopic) surgeons to use their sense of vision to compensate for their lack of touch. They have pitched their idea to a liquid crystal research center and have been asked to provide more details of their design.

Ironically, the Da Vincibles named themselves in honor of Da Vinci in February, months before the team even knew about robotic surgery and the Da Vinci Robot.

Several opportunities and connections at UCSB also helped the Da Vincibles’ project success. At UCSB’s Nano Day, the team learned about liquid crystals from presenter and graduate student Scott Ferguson. Coincidentally, the Da Vincibles bumped into Ferguson again during a tour of UCSB’s bioengineering facilities. Dave Bothman orchestrated the tour, gave a slide show introduction to bioengineering, and asked Ferguson to demonstrate his bioengineering work — using fast-working DNA sensors, rather than slow lab cultures, to diagnose diseases. Later, the Da Vincibles e-mailed and met with Ferguson to discuss their liquid crystal suture idea further. They are very grateful for his support.

Just for kicks, the entire Da Vincible team asked Keely Moore (a Dos Pueblos senior at the time) at the Santa Barbara Ballet Center to teach them to “robot” dance. With a few of Moore’s moves and a bunch of their own, the Da Vincibles choreographed a short dance to a clip of Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” and injected it into their project presentation. The Da Vincibles knew their behind-closed-doors project presentation had gone well when the tournament grapevine brought random requests for the Da Vincibles to “show us the robot dance.”

Additional locals helped out the Da Vincibles, too — some without knowing it. Dr. B.J. Kovacs gave an interview on his experience with thyroid cancer that became central to their project’s focus. Cal Poly’s Build an Engineer Day taught the team about bioengineering and materials engineering, and the UCSB Mechanical Engineer Capstone Projects (which included some bioengineering projects) further elucidated the field of bioengineering. The Da Vincibles would also like to thank all those who joined the JFLL team that they coached (Jack Ryan Cattoi, Adam and Justin Coffin, Matthew Helkey, Bryan Shott, Lucy Speier and Luke Williams). Those young volunteers helped the Da Vincibles in intangible ways, such as building leadership skills, time management skills and patience.

“We couldn’t have reached this success if it hadn’t been for the help of many in Santa Barbara, and the Da Vincibles are very grateful to them,” Chloe Shott said. “If we could ask for one more thing, it would be for Santa Barbara to wish us luck at the 2011 U.S. and Canadian Open Championship in May!”

— Cheryl Giordani is a Da Vincibles parent.

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